"Welcome to Portrush", the sign proclaimed ahead of us.
With a huge sigh of relief, we trundled into town. Finally, this wet, cold, Northern Irish day was done. All we had to do now was find our B&B, which appeared to be very straightforward, as all we needed to do was stay on the main road and then turn off onto a side street near the beach.
May we present Exhibit A: The Reality:
Do you see that green line? That's the actual route that we were forced to take, thanks to a series of one-way streets that Neil absolutely insisted on taking (being in rules-bound Germany has had a bigger effect on him than we realised), even though there were bugger all cars in the road and it would have actually been easier for us to get off the bike and walk it to the establishment. We lost twenty minutes trying to navigate through Portrush using this system. And by the time we reached Avarest Bed & Breakfast, we were fit to be tied.
Avarest was lovely, however, and like in previous places, they were extremely accommodating in allowing us to keep the tandem indoors - this time, Samson received a place of honour in the TV room. For £70 a night, we received a double seaview room with an ensuite bathroom, toiletries, and (most importantly!) a full Irish breakfast in the morning. But best of all, a washing machine and tumble dryer! We could barely contain our excitement. Four days of riding in the dampness made for some rather unpleasant smells.
As per usual, once we had our showers out of the way, we went out in search of food and entertainment. Neil had this foggy memory of being at the long established Barry's Amusements Arcade when he visited here as a pup, so we walked along the main road in search of one (there were several in the town) that looked open, enjoying the post-rain mist that covered everything around us.
We finally came across the arcade and entered in eager anticipation of some good old fashioned Pac-Man or Space Invaders to sink our pennies into. Neil had spent many a childhood holiday shovelling 10p pieces into arcade machines, and Jess had grown up on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean with beaches and boardwalks galore. This meant that we were old pros when it came this stuff. We remember when a classic arcade meant row after row of machines with Donkey Kong, Tron, and Out Run. Even Mario Brothers would have made the cut. Portrush, like most towns we've been through so far in Northern Ireland, is steeped in nostalgia. Surely, the arcades would have stayed the same year after year.
What we found was far more sad.
The entire place was filled with slot machines. Worn-out people were in front of them, numbly inserting what was most likely their pensions and pulling the trigger again and again. They sat in silence and stared dead ahead, their only sign of life being the occasional eye blink and the pull of the slot handle. There was silence apart from the rhythmic ding of the machine announcing yet again that they had lost that round.
We stood for as long as we dared, observing the scene, wondering where it had gone wrong for them. Where were their families? Why weren't they with their children and grandchildren? Why were they alone? For all the hurt that Northern Ireland has gone through in the recent past, one of the things we've constantly marvelled at is the sense of familial closeness. Grown children live down the street from their ageing parents, and multiple generations occupy the same neighbourhood. Doors are kept open or unlocked (a fact that scares Jess, who once lived in Harlem). Whether they know you or not, people constantly greet you with a simple "Hello" or a more amusing "Well?".
There was none of that here. These people in the arcade-turned-casino were lost.
We meandered our way towards the pier, where we found a few restaurants that seemed to hold the majority of the town's population in them, despite the fact that Monday night isn't the most popular for going out. We settled at Neptune & Prawn (whose parent company owns all the other establishments by the sea) and ate at the bar whilst people-watching. Far from digging into our typical fare of meat and potatoes, we went for something different with a Thai coconut curry and lobster risotto.
It was early doors yet, so afterwards, we walked to The Harbour Bar, a tiny joint that looked as if it had all the trimmings of your standard pub. Hilariously, the front room was stuffed to the gills with middle-aged men watching TV and betting on the horses. There was no place to sit, so we went to the back room where all the aforementioned men's wives were sitting by the fireplace gossiping. It was a type of gender segregation that we hadn't seen since the primary school years when boys and girls lined up on opposite sides of the gymnasium at a school dance. We didn't even know that such a thing existed anymore, and sure enough, the remaining open booths slowly filled up with a gaggle of old men who looked as if they had just come back from a day on the golf course. One in particular went around to everyone and asked, "Would you like a pin?", handing over a button inscribed with "I Heart Ramore".
Jess was feeling really sick at this point, so we headed back. Just in time for our longest day in the saddle yet - the ride to Derry.